I didn’t grow up in the US of those times, not did I grow up in North or South Vietnam. I grew up in the relative shelter of Madras in the South of India but as a kid I was fascinated by the Vietnam War. Looking back at those times, some four decades later, I think some of the visual images stayed in my mind, thanks to the pictures in “Life” magazine which we looked forward to most eagerly.
In this context, I was thrilled to recently read, “Assault from The Sky” by Dick Camp. The byline says, “US Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Viet Nam.” This book was recently published in the US and Great Britain by Casemate Publishers. Dick Camp himself is a war Veteran who won the Purple Heart and served 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before retiring as a Colonel in 1988. Camp writes, “I wrote Assault from the Sky as a tribute to the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter aircrews that performed so heroically during the Vietnam War. Their bravery and intrepidity throughout a decade of war set new standards of the Marine Corps motto Semper Fi, Always Faithful.”
Two images involving choppers in Viet Nam endure in my mind to this day. The first was of an air operation in a chopper code-named “Yankee Papa”13”, as seen through the eyes of Lance Corporal James Farley of the Marine Corps. This photo feature by Larry Burrows appeared in 1965. The second was the powerful image of the evacuation of Saigon at the end of the war. Many of us grew up believing that picture was of the US Embassy in Saigon. It was on reading this book that I came to know that the most publicized photo was the evacuation from the roof top of a complex where the CIA officials stayed and was not of the US Embassy.
Camp’s comprehensive book describes U.S. Marine Corps helicopter operations, including their actions and evolution, throughout the Vietnam War. The book is divided into parts spanning the three stages of the Corps’ combat deployment: “Buildup (1962-1966),” “Heavy Combat (1967-1969),” and “The Bitter End (1975).” Each part includes chapters devoted to “telling the story” of Marine helicopters from the individual to the strategic level in what came to be known as the “first helicopter war,” for the US.
The book is replete with stories of brave men who often laid down their lives to fight for their country in an intensely strange and hostile environment for them. Citations from the awards given illustrate the bravery of these men, explaining what they did, often at great risk to themselves. Starting from 1962 when the first US Marine choppers flew over Vietnam led by Lt Col Archie J. Clapp taking off from the USS Princeton’s flight deck on April 15, 1962, Camp writes of all the major engagements closing with Ambassador Martin at last leaving the US Embassy in Saigon in April 1975.
This eminently readable book has many pictures to bring alive the stories of heroism displayed by the chopper pilots. It was only on reading this book and the exploits of the chopper pilots that I was fully able to appreciate what Harry Reasoner said in the Evening News in February 1971 :” The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls, working in opposition to each other; and if there is any disturbance in the delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter. This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot; and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if anything bad has not happened it is about to.”
This understanding and the stories in Camp’s book places new meaning on the heroism shown by the US Marine chopper pilots all through a tough and relentlessly demanding war which stretched for over a decade.